The Backbench Live Part 2: Independent Theatres

On October 3rd, 2023, there was a very special episode of The Backbench Live recorded at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver during the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). Mattea Roach started the show by having a conversation with the owner of the Rio, Corinne Lea. 

Corinne Lea founded the Havana Restaurant, Theatre and Gallery with the Theatre and Gallery with her business partner Simon. It was her first multimedia venue. This was in 1995 and she sold her shared in 2000.


Now she is the owner of the Rio theatre and it’s everything she loves, her dream job.


The actual Rio theatre was built in 1938 and it now has 420 seats…so Vancouver!


Corinne started running the Rio in 2008. In the 1990’s Vancouver had a lot more repertory independent theaters such as the Ridge, The Hollywood, and the Van East. Now it’s the Park, the Dunbar, the VanCity and the Cinematheque (non-profit society). The Rio is the only for-profit stand-alone theatre that plays repertory movies left in Vancouver. 


In 2008 Corinne was part of a group of investors that bought the building. Their plan was to run it as a first-run movie theatre but without a liquor license doesn’t work. it’s not viable to be single screen theatre because you are forced to play a single movie for two to three weeks. If it’s a blockbuster it’s great, otherwise you are stuck without the variety. That’s why most theatres are now multiplexes. They can afford to have some empty screens with others supporting the concessions. 


At the beginning, there was a group of property owners of the Rio and some didn’t see the vision and wanted to sell. Corinne found a new landlord, Leonard Schein.  In 2012, he bought them out. They were fighting to change liquor laws. Once they got the license, they couldn’t play movies. That law had been around for 100 years.


Corinne struggled for four months with protests and no movies. Before that, the business had always done well. In April of 2012 Corinne and the Rio actually won. Richard Coleman made the change in BC from the pressure. Movies could finally be enjoyed while consuming alcohol in British Columbia. One year later Corinne got a Governor General’s award. 


This is part of Corinne’s fight. She keeps taking on seemingly impossible tasks.

The Save The Rio campaign happened In January of 2018. A real estate developer sent Leonard Schein a good offer to buy the building. He gave the Rio the choice of matching the offer. They had to raise 7.5 million dollars. With a very successful crowd-sourcing campaign, the community helped them buy it.


Cineplex dominates the market by 70%. Canada is one of the few countries that doesn’t have controlling bodies even though it’s supposed to that doesn’t allow for this type of monopoly. 


Most independent theatres are told by distributors that they can’t get access to a movie until Cineplex is done. Cineplex is the boss and everyone is left out. A lot of independent theatres have closed because of that. 


It also controls the consumer. Moviegoers have no choice but to go to a Cineplex theatre when a new movie is released till about 2-3 months later. The Rio had to wait as long as six months to get a movie. It’ll play on an airplane or online but are told, no it’s still playing at International Village so you can’t get it. 


Cineplex is now becoming a distributor which is ever stronger vertical integration.


The Rio doesn’t care about the blockbuster superhero movies. They play independent films along with repertory films which are often movies that are shot in Canada and celebrate Canadian stories. 


Cineplex has a hold on everything. Independent theatres need to exist because that’s how indie films get screened. If you just had Cineplex, smaller films wouldn’t get screened in theatres. Cineplex would not play them. 


Many celebrated directors such as Martin Scorsese are very supportive of independent theatres as these are the ways movies are meant to be seen. 

The youth today watch most content on personal devices. The movie theatre experience gets lost. Watching a movie is communal where emotions are shared. We laugh, cry, and smile in the dark together. It’s difficult to really articulate the importance to someone who doesn’t remember what that’s like.


The Rio is a hybrid of a live event and movie theatre business that complements each other really well. 


Venues that are solely for live entertainment, have a lot of dark days. The Rio is open every day of the year because there’s always something they can put on and the variety is really the thing that Corinne loves. That helps them survive. It’s too difficult for indie theatres to make it on cinema alone. Corinne can say what is on her mind because The Rio is a strength. Others can not afford that courage. Distributors will tell her that Cineplex will not allow The Rio to have a certain movie but they would never dare put that in writing. Nobody is brave enough to take on the Cineplex bully. 


On October 3rd, 2023, a full audience for the Vancouver International Film Festival, sat back and learned about The Rio theatre, Corinne Lea and great reasons to support independent theatre. This was a terrific start to The Backbench Live because it set the tempo for the panel in discussions about the future of the Canadian Film industry and what can happen here in Vancouver. 

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